Revolutionary roads

What actually happened in 1979? And how does the Iranian revolution compare with 1789 and 1917?
February 28, 2009

Crowning Ayatollah Khomeini its man of the year for 1979, Time magazine warned that "the revolution that he led to triumph threatens to upset the world balance of power more than any political event since Hitler's conquest of Europe." Thirty years on, the Iranian revolution may not have had the devastating impact that Time predicted, but it remains one of the central events of the last half-century. The fall of the Shah signified more than the rebirth of Islam as a political force. It was also a lasting reminder of the limits of western power and of the resilience and pride of Persian civilisation.

Does the Iranian revolution deserve to rank alongside the revolutions of 1789, 1917 and 1989 in modern history? To paraphrase the famous words of Zhou Enlai, it is probably too early to tell. Yet like the great revolutions in France and Russia, it was born in economic crisis, was sealed in bloodshed, and unleashed a long ideological struggle, both at home and abroad. It, too, was often misunderstood by outsiders. As late as August 1978, with mobs in the streets and the Shah's corrupt regime tottering, the CIA reported that "Iran is not in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation."

In fact, by this point the Shah's fate was already sealed. Rather like those other monarchs who lost their crowns to revolution, Louis XVI and Nicholas II, he was a proud man whose vanity concealed a weak, indecisive personality. Cocooned from his people in a gilded cage, he never grasped that while the reforms of his "white revolution" had alienated the clergy and rural landowners, his lavish spending—drawing on the vast wealth created by the first oil shock—was causing inflation to soar. And by the mid-1970s, the mood of Iran's young, articulate population, crammed into the baking shanty-towns and concrete high-rises of its overcrowded cities, was turning from frustration into fury.

The French revolution had the fall of the Bastille; the Russian had the Petrograd food riots. In Iran, the trigger for revolution was an inflammatory article in Ettelaat, a government newspaper, in January 1978 describing the exiled cleric Khomeini and his fellow mullahs as "a race of parasites, engaged in sodomy, usury, and drunk most of the time." Within two hours of the paper reaching the streets, demonstrators gathered in the religious city of Qom, starting a cycle of riots, repression and further demonstrations that reached a climax in December 1978.

Like so many victims of revolution, the Shah fatally hesitated before ordering modest, grudging reforms—in this case, the end of censorship, the dissolution of his hated secret police, and the installation of a liberal civilian government in January 1979. But by then it was too late. The revolution had acquired its own momentum. On 16th January 1979, shivering in the winter wind, the Shah bade farewell to his weeping generals on the runway of Tehran airport. On the streets his people were already burning his portraits and ripping down his statues.

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If the Shah's departure was a moment of narrative drama to set alongside the abdication of Nicholas II, what followed compared with Lenin's triumphant arrival at the Finland Station. Less than three weeks after the Shah's flight, a chartered Air France plane appeared in the skies above Tehran. It is probably no exaggeration to describe the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini from Paris as one of the pivotal moments of the century; certainly it was one of the best attended, with 5m people estimated to have lined the capital's streets to welcome him. Like Lenin, he had spent years in exile, his name becoming a symbol of resistance; like the Bolshevik leader, he combined ideological passion with pragmatism. And like Lenin, he rapidly became a bogeyman to westerners who often dismissed him as a madman. When President Jimmy Carter, himself a religious man, was given a National Security Council report on Khomeini, he wrote only one word in the margin: "Nutty."

Like the Russian revolutionaries, however, the ayatollahs defied their international critics and built a lasting regime, becoming a symbol—for all its manifest failings—of resistance to western secular capitalism. Within weeks of Khomeini's return, the provisional government had been swept away by street fighting and mutiny in the army, and although the ayatollah appointed a secular, leftist ally as the new prime minister, it was rapidly clear that power lay with his revolutionary council and revolutionary guards. By the end of March, western hopes for a secular, republican Iran were in tatters. In a referendum held in an atmosphere of anarchy and utopian excitement, 98 per cent of voters approved Khomeini's plan for an Islamic Republic. From that point on, the ayatollahs were clearly in charge.

As is often the case in revolutions, they were immediately challenged by foreign invasion. Yet the Iran-Iraq war worked to their advantage, allowing them to eliminate liberal critics and whip up patriotic passion. And although the course of the revolution was uncertain in the early days—even Khomeini's own position was never entirely safe—the war with Iraq was the turning point. Once the invaders had been repelled, the revolution was secure. And one of its abiding strengths—and sources of popularity—is that for the first time in more than a century Iranians felt they were not the play-thing of foreign powers.

If the story of the revolution since has been one of consolidation, corruption and stagnation, that is unsurprising. Bitterness and disillusionment was also the lot of revolutionaries in 1789 and 1917.

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